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[Vegas on My Mind]

AMC’s ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ pays tribute to Vegas’ role in the ’80s tech boom

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Conventional behavior: Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) gets creative on the COMDEX floor in AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.

A Vegas with no gambling. Sounds crazy, right? Almost offensive? Boring, too. Yet it happens in the brilliant AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire, and it not only makes perfect sense, it feels authentic and, as a choice by writers of a TV show, is a risky way to pay respect.

What the HACF folks did in the penultimate episode of its first season is groundbreaking. The show doesn’t leave out gambling because it dislikes it but because, it turns out, the casino floor is not always where the action is on the Strip.

“It didn’t feel that essential for the business these guys were in,” co-creator and co-executive producer Chris Rogers says.

HACF, which was wisely renewed last month despite undeservedly low ratings, is a drama set in the early 1980s just before the personal computer went mainstream. The 10-episode arc follows a fictional foursome of geeks and opportunists developing a “portable” PC with hopes of making a big splash in the industry. They end up in Vegas for the entire ninth episode not as a lark or to give writers a chance to show bawdiness or tackiness, but to unveil their machine at COMDEX.

To my knowledge, COMDEX—the late, great computer hardware megashow co-invented by Sheldon Adelson—has never figured into a piece of film or TV fiction before. And so when it needed to exist for HACF’s plot, Rogers and his team opted not to use Vegas (solely) for its stereotypes.

Part of that was financial necessity; new cable dramas must watch their pennies, and building a casino set can be expensive. But Rogers said HACF also rejected the use of ambient casino noises and opted to make drama out of the actual events of the era. Folks like these characters, he notes, did come to Vegas to gamble, but it was computers, not slot machines, that could and would make them rich.

HACF does, like all fiction, bend some truth. Scantily clad “booth babes” abound on the show floor, a character explains, because “Vegas” decided booking a porn convention next door might keep the casinos busy, given that geeks don’t gamble. Rogers says they knew the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo wouldn’t launch for years but that a former tech journalist who consulted on HACF gave them historical cover by claiming a less organized porn gathering existed in COMDEX’s orbit long before the big one took hold.

“I think any time you’re talking about servers and computer code and you can say something like ‘porn convention,’ we’re like, ‘let’s try to get that in,’” Rogers says.

He’s forgiven, because the main thrust of this portrayal—making the happenings of that least thrilling of Vegas events, the trade show, exciting—is such a challenging trick to pull off. This is a show that already has a tough job finding intrigue and drama in a recent past when everyone knows the future is won by Apple, Dell and Microsoft. Other historical dramas of this sort—Showtime’s Masters of Sex, about the Masters and Johnson study of human sexuality or WGN America’s Manhattan, about the race to build the nuclear bomb during World War II—are distant enough to be just outside most viewers’ personal memories. Also, they’re about sex and war, far tastier meals for most TV watchers.

If there is one peculiarity in HACF’s Vegas, it’s that conventioneers stay at a fictional Vegas resort, the Norwick. It’s a surprising departure for a show with fictional characters who work for real companies (such as IBM and Texas Instruments), which approximates what the COMDEX ID badges looked like at the time and shows glimpses of 1983-era Vegas hotels like Caesars Palace and the Dunes out the Norwick’s windows.

Evidently, Rogers says, the legal folks got permission to use or include all of those brands but couldn’t secure clearance regarding the Las Vegas Hilton, where the who’s who stayed for COMDEX back then. It’s a modest, forgivable omission, and perhaps by the next COMDEX episode—Rogers says it’s entirely possible the show will figure as the HACF equivalent of the state finals in each season of Friday Night Lights—they’ll sort that out.

Either way, here’s hoping HACF can, in fact, catch fire. It could be an important vehicle for Vegas to finally get credit for having been a place where countless minor and major leaps in technology were first beheld. HACF gives Vegas a more noble, highbrow place in history, a city that gave us more than Liberace or much more than the ability to tour Europe on one block with a frozen margarita dangling from your neck.

The events in those showrooms marked the starting line for bringing so much of what we use today to market. I had forgotten that until I watched this show. I’m happy somebody else remembered.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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